In September of 2012, my daughters and I traveled back to my birthland, South Korea. I refer to it as a birthland, because that was where I was born, but not raised. My family and I immigrated when I was four years old to the United States. I grew up in San Diego, California, and even today, living in Vermont, I still feel like a Californian in my heart.
For me the concept of a homeland is complicated. As a child, I never saw myself as an “American.” Americans were blond and blue eyed. Americans did not get yelled at with racial slurs or grotesque gestures of fingers pulling back the corners of eyes. Americans did not look like me. And yet, I did not feel distinctly Korean either. My outspokenness and questioning set me apart from other Korean children. At least that was what my parents would have me believe. So I wasn’t exactly Korean. And I certainly wasn’t American. I, and many children of my generation who immigrated from Korea to the United States at a young age or were born here to first generation parents, lived amongst the hyphens. The odd dash or space between identities. Korean American. We spoke Korean at home and English outside of the house.
To return for the first time to Korea since I immigrated was a very surreal journey. In many ways I felt guarded. I had heard from other Korean Americans who returned to Korea for visits, that the Koreans in Korea were somewhat unkind to the returnees. Those without language skills were taunted and made to feel that they were not truly Korean. Even the way we wore our clothes somehow signaled our difference in culture. Obviously, South Korea has modernized and Westernized since I left, and surely, attitudes and ideas must have changed with the times. Yet, I still worried about rejection. For so long, I had felt marginalized in the United States, and in some ways, I held a hope that there was a place that I might fully belong. As my daughters and I boarded the plane, I worried most of all that now I would truly come to understand, there was no homeland.
The first ten days in Korea were spent traveling by car all around the country. We had an English language GPS system and a map downloaded from Google. We visited historical sites, old villages, tea plantations and canoed in the ocean near my birthplace. The Gangwondo province is famous for its mountains and rugged coastline. For the first time, I saw the waters I had always imagined I remembered. They were more beautiful than anything I ever dreamt. Emerald green water with craggy outcroppings of rock; the seascape was just spectacular. And even though it was a little on the chilly side, my girls took a dip! It felt a bit like a baptism.
(Kayaking in the waters of Gangwondo Province)
Even more amazing than the landscape were the people. So many friendly, helpful, kind people who aided us when we were lost, fed us when we were hungry, made us laugh when we were homesick, and loved us as children who had returned. One toll agent even opened up a secret gate when I accidently ran the toll and then backed up to try and pay, blocking rows and rows of cars. Nightmare driver! The agent got out of her booth, waved me over to the far end and unlocked a gate that led out to a street. I tried to give her the money for the toll, but she wouldn’t take it and wanted to know where we were from in the United States. She wished us safe travels and waved as we left.
(Chadwick International School in Songdo. Catherine, the librarian, was amazing!)
Time and time again from my sub rights agent,to my publisher, the international schools, librarians and their fantastic students, everywhere we went, everyone was so kind and delighted to meet us. They made us feel welcome, and more importantly, they wanted us to stay. They made us feel that we belonged in Korea with them.
(Traditional feast meal)
All my memories of Korea and my childhood there had always been little fragments of images, people and places. None of it made sense, but they represented puzzle pieces to a whole picture that was always out of reach. As the days folded into weeks and the weeks collected into a month, I realized that my picture of Korea had not only been pieced together, but it had grown and shaped itself into a land. My homeland.
(Lantern Festival in Jinju. The entire city was lit up with huge lanterns!)